When the fridge says your lettuce has spoiled: Smart homes more affordable

Eat your heart out, George Jetson.

New gadgets and technology can automate a house to the point where homeowners are alerted when food in the fridge goes bad, for example, irrigation systems monitor dew levels, and toilets medically analyze urine. Some of these controls even allow users to control systems on the road and by cellphone.

Smart-home features are still pretty pricey, but costs are expected to come down as the demand for more convenience grows and technology becomes more accessible and affordable.

"The future is here but it's not equally distributed," said Ilya Billig, vice president of business development at technology company Lagotek. "Our goal is to make it so."

The Bellevue, Wash.-based company last year introduced its newest automation software called "Home Intelligence Platform" that allows consumers to wirelessly control the television, computer, Internet, lighting, temperature, security and irrigation from an in-wall control panel, remote control or PDA.

The wireless technology is cheaper than hard-wired systems (around $10,000 for Lagotek's software versus up to $100,000 or more for hard-wired systems), and allows consumers to take their systems with them if they move.

When it comes to smart homes, clever products and systems are available for every room, says Ron Zimmer, president and chief executive of Continental Automated Buildings Association, a trade group that represents the home and commercial automation industry.


LG Electronics offers its "TV Refrigerator with HD Ready LCD TV and Weather & Info Center," which features a built-in cable-ready television, electronic cookbook and weather channel. It retails around $4,000.

Other refrigerators have advanced climate control and can track food expiration dates, while some large appliance makers offer appliances that run self-diagnostic tests and alert you when something's awry before disaster occurs. All of these can run $3,000 and up.


Security systems are sophisticated enough these days that they not only sound an alarm if there's a fire, but also can be programmed to turn on the lights if the emergency is at night, call the fire or police department and call you if you're not home (at a cost of $10,000 and up).

"The system can also keep the air conditioning from automatically turning on, which would pump fresh air into the fire," Zimmer said.

Webcams are an inexpensive way to monitor the security around a house and can feed into a television or home computer. This has become even more important as more Baby Boomers choose to age at home, but still want the security they would find in a senior-living complex.

"A webcam can see if it's a girl scout selling cookies at the front door or someone waiting there with a crowbar," Zimmer said.


Watch the morning news while shaving or putting on mascara. There are now mirrors designed with an LCD television behind them — to the tune of $3,200.

"When the TV's turned off, it looks like a regular mirror. No one is the wiser," Zimmer said.

Sound systems can also be piped into the bathroom to help keep your shower singing on key.

Japanese company Toto offers the "Intelligence Toilet" system that measures sugar levels in urine, blood pressure, body fat and weight. The results are automatically analyzed on a home computer network and can be sent to a doctor's office over the Internet. It's price tag: $3,700.

Temperature control also is a big deal in the bathroom. Some shower and bath valves allow for multiple water temperature settings, so a bather doesn't have to adjust the faucets. This also helps to keep children and elderly from scalding themselves. Prices start around $200, with models from Kohler, Moen and Grohe.

Some tubs and showers developed by MTI Whirlpools come with radiant heating systems. The shower's floor and seat or areas on the tub's back and bottom are heated for comfortable entry. The system can be installed in freestanding tubs for $999.

Keep your toes warm too by heating your tile flooring.

"It's more energy efficient heating system too because heat naturally rises," says Louise Farrar-Wegener, owner of interior design firm Z3 Design Studio in Portland, Ore.

Springfield, Mo.-based Watts Radiant offers electric underfloor mats. Heating coils are woven into the mats, and regulated by a floor sensor, which can be turned on or off at any time. The cost for an underfloor mat runs about $800 and up, per room, and operating costs average about a dime a day.

On the horizon

As Boomers age, home medical testing devices seem the most logical ventures for some manufacturers. Farrar-Wegener says companies are working on devices that can monitor insulin levels, blood pressure or embedded medical devices like pacemakers.

"Just plug yourself in and send your report to your physician," she explains.

Other manufacturers are working on a so-called projection kitchen counter, she says, that will read microchips on ingredients and come up with a recipe using just those ingredients. Talk about taking the guesswork out of dinner.

And what home is complete without a robotic butler or maid? A few retail prototypes are in development, while the Massachusetts Institute of Technology last year introduced Domo, a robot that can grab and put objects away on shelves or counters. The model was for research only, but will help pave the way for retail versions.

Perhaps in a few short years, you won't have to answer the door. Tea, anyone?